Sustainability joined the fashion set’s buzzwords as the cognoscenti swarmed into a rainy London for London fashion week.
Fashion is a foreign land with its own language. Shop talk is peppered with phrases like “on trend”, “directional”, “architectural”, “I’m loving…” and “so over that”. Clothes “scream” about something or other and the biggest compliment you can pay someone is to ask if you can photograph them for your blog.
Following Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed 1,129 people, and Labour Behind the Label’s report on malnourished Cambodian textile workers (around 33% of whom are medically underweight), I wondered if any of these stories had affected the fashionistas.
“Sustainability is very important,” cooed trendspotter Yvan Rodic. We were standing in a press queue with a host of other journalists, bloggers and blaggers all hungry for an “in” to what is rising on fashion’s horizon. “It’s good for a designer to have something eco-friendly in their collection.”
So it’s “a good look”. The UK throws out 350,000 tonnes of clothes into landfill every year. Surely sustainability isn’t just about having something eco-friendly, but about whether we even need all those clothes?
“The fashion and textile industry comprises many other industries from agriculture to communications. It has enormous impact,” says Orsola de Castro of Estethica – the British Fashion Council’s ethical fashion wing. “It’s a tough industry to change because there are so many elements to it. But it is also an industry that can really make a difference.”
Jocelyn Whipple is an environmentalist who works with designers and industry to guide them down a more ethical route. With over 10 years’ experience, her pet-peeve question is whether people have to compromise style over ethics. “Ethical designers compromise on ‘the look’ as much as ‘unethical’ designers do,” she says. “There are some serious design atrocities out there with zero style and zero ethics.”
Jocelyn’s colleagues at the Green Carpet Challenge – an initiative to get A-list celebrities to wear sustainable fashion on the red carpet – put words into action by launching a capsule collection with online retailer Net A Porter. Ten gowns designed by Christopher Kane, Roland Mouret, Christopher Bailey, Erdem and Victoria Beckham were unveiled at the uber-posh Apsley House with the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch and Anna Wintour in attendance. You couldn’t be further away from the unwashed-hippy-in-hemp cliché.
“We have proven that ethics and aesthetics are a match made in heaven,” says Green Carpet Challenge founder Livia Firth. “Design has nothing to do with unethical production and low impact environmental materials.”
However, optimism about sustainable fashion has its limits. Orsola de Castro doesn’t think a fashion week where all designers are sustainable is likely.
“Yet. Or ever, even. The concept of a fashion week is pretty environmentally unfriendly. But a fashion week where most designers incorporate elements of sustainable design innovation is something I can see in the near future.”
It’s in a designer’s interest to know where their materials are sourced so they know what they are working with.
“If there are two ways of doing something and one was more sustainable, we’d go for it,” explains Jayne Hemsley, a designer who has devised a novel way of fitting both a digital tablet and a dog in a handbag. “We know the men who pick out the skins, the tanneries and the women who cut and sew in the factory. It should be a more innate responsibility in a company, not just a social phase. There’s a lot of opportunity for designers to work more sustainably, but it should always be the less expensive option. Oftentimes, it isn’t.”
Later in the week, in a less-salubrious West London exhibition hall, The Sustainable Angle held their Future Fabrics Expo. Amid European wholesale traders who seemed to specialise in market-stall tat (think Lurex with more petrochemicals) were soft nettle fabrics, waterproofs made of coffee waste, Icelandic fish leathers and water-soluble swing tags from sticky-label makers Avery. The idea is not to negate traditional cotton, linen and wool but to offer unexpected additional options for designers.
“If a business wants to futureproof itself, it has to have a sustainability plan,” says The Sustainable Angle’s director Nina Marenzi. “This planet has resource constraints; natural fibres are bound to be more expensive in future. Supply chains will have to use what costs less.”
Some fashion retailers release up to 300 new styles per week. These are styles knocked off the catwalk with lead times as short as 13 days. Clothes are mass-produced in factories manned by workers who get their material from other factories manned by more workers who get their raw material from farmers and cultivators. This part of the chain is usually faceless.
Conversely, we also have designers who produce in limited quantities and take pride at knowing at least a part of their supply chain. Most of whom I spoke with all admitted they could do better. Many young fashion students still in the “canary-yellow wearing” phase surprised me with their eloquence about the environment and workers’ rights.
The ethics and morality behind sustainability don’t run contrary to fashion, although it may grate against the foundations of fashion industry. The noise off the high street can make us forget that the styles we wear are cogs in a £680bn ($1.1tn) business machine reliant on ever-decreasing natural resources. Something’s gotta give.
This article first appeared in The Guardian, 24 September 2013.